With the decade coming to a close, fans have stood witness to many scintillating teams of football. From Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid that won three Champions League titles to Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli, many teams have dazzled fans of this generation. But with due respect to all others, none have been better than Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
It isn’t to say that Guardiola is the best manager in the world right now. And it isn’t to say that Barcelona are the best team in the world right now. It is about the period of 2011 when the Catalans dominated world football like no one else.
Guardiola had this spine of players who had grown up playing this brand of football that Barcelona had taken pride in. He himself had overseen the development of many of these players himself. And that was an advantage when they stepped through to the first-team fold, as Frank Rijkaard got the sack in 2008.
One game that would define the greatness of that side came in the summer of 2011. It was the UEFA Champions League final against Manchester United at Wembley. United had come past Schalke, Chelsea and Marseille. Their game-management was top-notch and it shone through in the Chelsea tie.
As for Barcelona, they had beaten Real Madrid, Arsenal and Shakhtar Donetsk. They had been playing football that was on another level from what Johan Cruyff had.
And it was one of the most one-sided Champions League finals in recent years. The scoreline was 3-1, but United had only 32 percent possession. They had only four shots on target. Victor Valdes didn’t have to make a single save, while Edwin van der Sar made eight in his last game for United.
United were chasing shadows. After the game, Sir Alex Ferguson was clearly in awe of what he had seen.
He told reporters (via The Telegraph): “In my time as a manager, it’s the best team we’ve faced. Everyone acknowledges that and I accept that. It’s not easy when you’ve been well beaten like that to think another way.
“No one has given us a hiding like that. It’s a great moment for them. They deserve it because they play the right way and enjoy their football.”
It wasn’t just the domination in the Champions League that was striking. They had won the La Liga by having an average possession of 67.4%. The idea was to keep the ball on the ground as much as they could. The likes of Andres Iniesta and Xavi kept play ticking with their triangular movement in midfield. David Villa was happy to sacrifice his position by playing in wide positions. Lionel Messi had the freedom to play almost as a false nine.
They completed as many as 14.7 dribbles per game that season- more than anyone in the La Liga. It was such a well-oiled unit that winning the ball off them was next to impossible. It was a process that had come into being over the last few years. They had also won the Champions League in 2009 by beating United. But it wasn’t as beautiful as 2011.
The fact that they had won trophies was just as special. And they had done that multiple times. They made it look easy and made football look as beautiful as it can be. For Cruyff, that is all that has mattered. This team was a success in showing the world what Cruyff has always wanted. It was a completion of his mission. And it was a project that took over 400 years in the backyards of the Amsterdam Arena.